Saturday, May 27, 2006

Read This Book: "The Time Traveler's Wife"

First of all, fair disclosure makes it essential that before I review The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger (2003, San Francisco: MacAdam/Cage), I must tell you, dear reader, that I am mad for anything dealing with time travel. It might very well be my favorite science fiction/fantasy theme, and I will read just about anything that even hints at dealing with the concept.

That disclosure taken care of, this is a fabulous book. I can’t think of any better descriptive word. I was entranced by the story, by the way the story is told, by the characters - it is just a fabulous story, fabulously well told. I’ve been having trouble finding books that will hold my attention just lately. This one grabbed my attention and did not let go; I only didn’t sit and read it straight through because of things like, oh, having to work.

We are taken into the life of Henry DeTamble, who is able to travel through time. Well, able might not be the best word - he spontaneously travels through time, not able to control when he goes, or where, or how much time he spends in the past or, less often, the future. This turns out to be a genetic trait, something that eventually comes to be called Chrono-Displacement Disorder. Because, after all, every condition must have its own name here in the twenty-first century. Different things trigger his travels. The first time it happens is on his fifth birthday. His parents have taken him to the Field Museum in Chicago for his birthday, and he just does not want to leave. That night, he travels there again and spends the night with an older version of himself. It will not be the last time he spends time with himself in an older or younger edition.

While he cannot control his travel, Henry often travels to particular places and events. He visits his mother’s death in a car crash over and over. And he often goes to a particular meadow, where he gets to know a girl named Claire. The first time they meet, Claire is six years old and Henry is thirty-six. As they meet again and again through the years, Claire falls in love with Henry while he already knows that they will eventually marry. After a two-year period in which they do not meet, Claire comes across a non-time-traveling Henry when she visit’s the library where he works. She is 20, he is 28. She practically jumps him; he has no idea who she is since all of the times he has time traveled to visit her he has been older than he is on that day. She tries to explain who she is, what their relationship is, but he is clueless and she has to ask him out.

The story, like Henry, jumps back and forth through time. That might have been difficult to follow, except that the author indicates for every scene what the date is and how old both Claire and Henry is at the time. It also brings a heartbreaking tone to the telling, as the reader waits for something to happen that we know will take place but some of the characters do not know. It all works wonderfully, though, to draw the reader into the story.

The characters are wonderfully drawn. We see them warts and all, intimately. I can’t recall too many novels where I have felt so much a part of the lives of the characters, as if they are living people rather than ink on paper with just a semblance of life. It is easy to care for these people, and to worry about what will happen to them.

If I have any quibble with the book at all, and it is a small one and probably just a relic of my own perceptions, it is that it often seems to be taking place in an earlier time. Despite the pop culture and pop music references to places like McDonalds, to people like Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, the book had a feel of taking place in some earlier era. I’m not quite sure why that is, but it was sometimes jarring to me to see some of the modern references.

On the other hand, the inclusion of actual historical events provided what was, for me, one of the most poignant moments in the book. Henry, having traveled into the future as well as the past, knows what will take place on the morning of September 11, 2001. He has told Claire about it, and on that morning she wakes up early only to find Henry and their daughter sitting in front of the TV. “How come you’re up,” she asks him. “I thought you said it wasn’t for a couple of hours yet.” His reply to her is, “I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to listen to the world being normal for a little while longer.” That scene brought tears to my eyes. It made so much sense to me. I miss that normal, non-paranoid world, that world where a congressman hearing a construction worker using a nail gun didn’t automatically think it was weapons fire and cause a panic and the shutdown of a whole office building in Washington, D.C., which happened yesterday, as I write this.

Enjoy this book for just what it is, an extremely good story. Or enjoy it for the ideas it presents the reader to think about at leisure - and there are plenty of them in there. But please, read this book.

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